Wednesday, 2 January 2013

My month as a Hawthornden Fellow



Hawthornden Castle December 2012


Hawthornden Castle
I guess a month cloistered with four other writers in a Scottish castle is not for everyone - but for this writer, it sounded perfect, and I was thrilled when my application was successful. But then, I started looking up this place, this fellowship - to see how other writers had fared, and found... almost nothing. Which, in this age of information overload, is extraordinary. So I am rectifying that. 
and again...

one of the many paths in the grounds
It’s such a brilliant gift, being able to step off the planet for four whole weeks, staying in an extraordinary place, being looked after by a housekeeper, an assistant housekeeper, a cook, the whole experience overseen by an on-site administrator. Acres and acres of tangled, steep, and atmospheric grounds to wander in, a rushing river - the North Esk -whose sound lulls you to sleep each night, no need to so much as think about shopping, cooking - you can even, if you wish, have your bedroom tidied every day. Not that one would, you know - but the thought of it is such a luxury!
So - what is Hawthornden Castle? As it says - a rather unique, solid and sometimes beautiful castle built high on a rock overlooking a bend in the North Esk river, a few miles south of Edinburgh. One of my colleagues described it as something like a safe stone ship for writers, and I can do no better. 
Once, this castle was home to the poet William Drummond (1595 - 1649). In the grounds there is a superb double seat overlooking the river, carved from solid rock - dubbed Drummond's Seat. 


Drummond's Seat

All five writers were collected at Edinburgh Waverley, and driven to the castle by Hamish the administrator - fount of all knowledge, protector of silence, writer of libretti and general good egg. In the car, conversation was light, and undercurrents churned along as we eyed each other up. What is it going to be like having to have dinner with these people every evening for a whole month?

It is such an odd thing - I think we were all bowled over by the surreality of the opportunity, as well as by the generosity of a benefactress of the arts called Drue Heinz who keeps a whole castle just for writers.
My four companions for the month were  a good mix. I count myself hugely lucky - all were terrific company, great conversationalists, great players of Scrabble and Outburst after dinner, and above all, hard workers. I guess one thing about telling adults to be quiet is that many will make their own rules - luckly we didn’t - and I am sure that is the same with every intake. I won't emblazon their identities here.
my study-bedroom
the wonderful spiral staircase to the top floor
Four of us were allocated study-bedrooms on the ‘writers’ floor’ - in the attic - a series of simply furnished, homely rooms on the old servants’ floor, I would guess. Accessed by a stone spiral staircase, every trip up or down was a reminder of the age and the uniqueness of where we were. I soon grew to love my room - its view over the ancient courtyard, the ruins of the original medieval castle, and up to a steep wooded hillside. 





Like all rooms, it had a desk and desklight, but as usual, as in Ireland at Anam Cara, most of my writing got done curled up on the bed. With or without hot water bottle. 
The days ran to their own rhythm, effortlessly. We would meet for breakfast in the ‘hearth room’, a gorgous dining room next to the kitchen, lined with portraits of Scottish heroes. We would eat porridge from old pewter bowls stamped appropriately enough, ‘HMS Hero’. We’d make toast, talk about plans for the day. One or two would go out for a morning walk round the grounds. And on or before 9.30, we’d be back in our rooms, with the hours stretching ahead, and no excuse but to focus, to read, write or revise. 
a gorgeous hall

No - you do not have to work in your room. There are three libraries, including one that is new, large, purpose-built and beautiful. One, built at the end of the castle, has the most wonderful views out over the glen. Another, in the ruins of the medieval castle, is reeking with atmosphere. There is a vast and pretty sitting room,  a Sunday dining room, the hearth room where we had breakfast each day and supper during the week, a hallway where there was sometimes a roaring fire, a summer room, and of course, the grounds - they would be wonderful to work in in warm weather. But this was November and December - and it was chilly. So I stayed put.
Can you go out? Yes, of course. Edinburgh and its delights is only a bus ride away. You can walk in the grounds, go into the local town of Bonnyrigg with its shops, you can walk on the old railway line. I didn’t go to Edinburgh, as my colleagues did at weekends, but worked on.  I went to London instead half way through, to collect a poetry award - but the lack of a proper break soon started to tell, looking back. I felt very stir-crazy despite short walks in the grounds now and again (More again than now - thanks to a dodgy foot - I’d had a small op just before going, which refused to heal , but it did in the end).

So stir-crazy me took a day off in the last week and walked to Rosslyn Chapel. It isn’t far - about 3 or 4 miles, I suppose, but it is a must-see when you are there. They have a jolly nice caff too. I had toasted haggis and sweet potato and mozarella sandwiches...now isnt that interesting?!
The evenings were a good foil to the days of work. A quick snifter of sherry would be followed by supper in the hearth room in the company of Hamish Robinson the administrator. Conversation flowed, as did the wine from Bonnyrigg Co-op. When we had finished, the immortal words would be uttered by Hamish, ‘Shall we go upstairs?’ - which being translated means, ‘Shall we repair to the drawing room?’ So we did, and games of Scrabble were played, or something called Outburst - made in the 1980s, it taxed our memories something chronic when we had to remember parts of a camera before the digital revolution. 
(Oh dear - I can see the equivalent in fifty years time - Name 10 things that are part of a book, era - 2012 -  Paper. pages. print. spine. binding. endpapers. cover. hardback. softback.  illustrations.)

 Four weeks went by incredibly fast. For the first few days it felt like we had a year stretching ahead, and before you knew it, you were over half way, then into the last week, wondering where the time had gone. Without exception, we were amazed at how much work got done. (See end).
I loved every minute. I made four new writing friends, all of whom were just a delight to get to know. I surprised myself with what I wrote, some days. Even on those days I thought ‘nothing is going to work today’, it did, somehow. 
Once you have been a Hawthornden International Fellow, you can not reapply for five years. I’m thinking of changing my name just so I can. 
Huge thanks to Drue Heinz for giving us this extraordinary gift. She is not at the castle when writers are in residence - but her presence permeates the place. Bless her. 

*Work done on next novel - I took 40k of fast scribble done in Ireland earlier in the year.  I edited hard, wrote new stuff hard, spent a lot of time thinking and dreaming. I came away with 70k - some of which I am happy with. And I now know where I am going. I also wrote two poems, one article for Psychologies Magazine (out in February) and started another for The New Writer. 

30 comments:

  1. I've been toying with applying for a while. The spiral staircase looks a bit scary though.
    What an interesting account!

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  2. Ooh V that looks lovely! What a wonderful opportunity, and it sounds as though it was very productive for you too. Quite envious, although it's not something I can imagine for myself, at least for another 10 years. But I'd love to one day. Thanks for the delicious write up!

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  3. Hi Vanessa, Mandy Pannett alerted me to your blog account of Hawthornden. I was there the month before you and like you thought it wonderful! No-one among the 4 writers I shared with played Scrabble or anything else alas. So I went out and watched agreat deal of wild-life which was joyful. I loved working in the poetry library, marvellous place.

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  4. Oh it brings it all back to me! I am counting down the years til I can apply again. So glad you had such a wonderful time with great people, and got so much work done. It's a magical place.

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  5. Angela - Im sure you'd love it - and that staircase isn't scary at all. Its only half a dozen curly steps! Good luck if you do apply.

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  6. Claire - it will still be there in ten years time... I have it on good authority!

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  7. Hello Red - thanks for dropping in - golly, you must have frozen in the poetry library! But yes, isnt it wonderful?

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  8. Hi T - it will continue to feed us for a long time! x

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  9. So looking forward to the sequel of The Cowards Tale - and so very happy to have this insight into your crenellated captivity.

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  10. Wonderful, Vanessa. Sounds like my dream. Nothing to think about but my writing in glorious surroundings and no pointless interruptions - oh and the silence. But, then again, I'm not sure I could cope. I'ma bit of a home body. More an Emily Bronte than a Robert Louis Stevenson.

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    1. HI Sally - I think quite honestly, we were all a bit apprehensive, as well as excited. And of course, missed home - but my little room became hone very quickly, and now Im home, I miss it! xx

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  11. It sounds amazingly productive. Like Claire I'm a few years off being able to go away for a whole month but one day...

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  12. Hello sister mine! You may have a bit of a wait - it's a load of rubbish at the moment!

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  13. I've wondered so about this. It sounds great. Like Angela, I've thought about applying for ages and I'd love to. the question is, if I go to Cambodia for 6 weeks each year, can I leave poor hubby for yet another month (and still hope to have a viable marriage at the end :-) ). It does sound fantastic, though.

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    1. Hi Sue, you'd love it, I'm sure. But I do understand the issues here. Had you considered the Gladstone's LIbrary residencies, where your other half can come and stay with you if you wish?

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  14. Thanks so much for this, Vanessa. I begin my residency tomorrow, so you can just imagine how excited I am right now!

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  15. Have a brilliant four weeks, Camille.

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  16. Oh, now I really want to go! Thanks so much for all this.

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  17. I'm sure you will go - and love it when you do x

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  18. I guess it wouldn't be for everyone, it felt a little like being in purdah, but if you have a definite writing goal and lots of distractions at home, then it is an amazing opportunity. I was there in September 2011 - what better place to edit a 16th c Scottish novel?
    My first goal was a complete read aloud of my book in order to find parts that needed attention, - it is so much more productive reading in huge chunks - so I worked up at the new library in the walled garden. I spent 3 days reading to passing birds of prey, rabbits and even a young deer. Time seemed elastic.
    I was happy with the finished product and was delighted when the novel went on to win the HF section in the Harper Collins / Alan Titchmarsh People's Novelist competition and was picked up by the Edinburgh-based publisher, Capercaillie Books.
    It was a thrill in November 2012 to have Hamish (the administrator) attend the book launch and receive Hawthornden's copy. Now I get to have my name painted on the door of the bedroom I slept in - a lovely Hawthornden custom.
    I'd recommend it to anyone who finds quiet, solitude and atmosphere the right ingredients for productive work.

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  19. How fantastic - it seems the universe was conspiring to have you in the right place for this novel. Many congratulations on the wonderful competition success, and subsequent publication - and thanks for reminding me - somewhere I have a photo of my bedroom f=door, complete with lunch hamper waiting ourside...

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  20. Sounds completely idyllic.

    Sigh.

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  21. Ah but there was lots of porridge... x

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  22. Being a porridge fan this sort of start to a writing day sounds cosy and inspiring at the same time. What gorgeous light! What a gift from a generous host. I'm sure you worked well there! Xcat

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  23. Thanks for dropping in Cat - it is a real gift, indeed!

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  24. What a fantastic experience. Being able to get-off-the-roundabout for a month - awesome!

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  25. What a dream! I couldn't imagine anything more magical or inspiring. Honestly, I didn't really know opportunities like this even existed. Another thing for the bucket list :)

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  26. Loved reading this. Would you be willing to share the link? I can't find any application information on the web.

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  27. Hi Sheila - there is not a lot of info - but here is one link - you ring up for an application pack
    . Good luck. http://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/events-2/hawthornden-castle-international-retreat.html

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